Monday, January 26, 2015

Movie Review - The Days of Wine and Roses

Days of Wine and Roses (1962) - A public relations man (Jack Lemmon) falls in love with the secretary of a client (Lee Remick).  His alcoholism becomes their alcoholism and their lives spin out of control.  Nominated for five Oscars (including both Best Actor and Actress) wining once for the Henry Mancini score.

Most of us associate Jack Lemmon with lighter comedy roles so this one is a change of pace.  He was a favorite of director Billy Wilder, working on films like "Some Like It Hot", "The Apartment" and "The Front Page".  Like a lot of great comic actors he brings emotional depth to his more serious roles.  That's a great asset in a film that takes on a subject that Hollywood generally avoided, alcoholism  at home.  In fact, the Warner Bros. studio had serious reservations about the ending.  The cast and crew were so concerned that the ending would be changed they filmed the movie in order (standard procedure would have them do all the scenes on a certain set at the same time as a time and cost saving measure) and Jack Lemmon left the country immediately after the last shot was completed so he couldn't be called back for a re-shoot.

The advertising tag line for the movie was "This, in its own terrifying way, is a love story."

"Days of Wine and Roses" offers a variety of discordant aspects in the film.  The gentle, smooth sound of Mancini's score, especially the theme song against the deepening anguish of the story line create a perfect environment for the characters.  Lemmon and Remick create characters that you can't help but like even as you watch them destroy themselves.  The movie begins with a smooth, polished feel but director Blake Edwards lets the aesthetic of the movie to shift as their lives descend into madness.

Not a light time at the movies but an amazing movie.

Rating - **** Recommended

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Review - Emily Alone

Emily Alone by Stewart O'Nan (2011) - Emily Maxwell has reached that awkward time in her life.  Her children are grown, her husband had died and her friends are following suit.  As much as she would love to change things about that equation she's not sure she can or even how to begin.  Yet along the way things will change and Emily will find that there is more to her than she believed.

This is a sequel to O'Nan's successful novel "Wish You Were Here" but I must confess that I had never heard of either of these works or the novelist himself.  The book came as a recommendation from my MFA Creative Writing candidate daughter.  With the story anchored in Pittsburgh with just a taste of Chautauqua, NY (two places that are very special to me) it seemed an obvious choice to read.

What doesn't seem as obvious is the topic of the story.  Emily is a little old lady, living a little old ladies life.  There's very little exciting going on (other than her friend Arlene suddenly fainting at Eat'n Park).  This is a quiet life working its way along day by quiet day.  She works her way through trying to understand her grown up children and her growing up grandchildren.

At this point some of you have decided that this story isn't for you.  To you, I have a simple message:

Don't make that mistake!
If you do you will miss the stellar storytelling of Stewart O'Nan.  I find myself at a loss for the words with which to describe this story.  Gentle, bittersweet, resoundingly human, warm, authentic and ultimately captivating.  He not only takes into the carefully circumscribed world of a senior citizen but he makes you feel comfortable there.  You understand the whys and hows of the path that brought Emily to this point in her life.  This is a story telling masterwork.  It makes me wonder why I haven't discovered this author before and certainly makes me want to read more of his work.

O'Nan, like yours truly, is a Pittsburgh boy.  His love of our hometown comes through clearly.  For those of us who know the city and its environs, O'Nan will put you firmly into those places.  When you add in that Emily reminds me, in some ways, of my own mom you get a story that has all the basic pieces to appeal to me.  At the same time it was the author's ability to tell her story that ultimately charmed me.

This isn't the kind of story that you find waiting on every shelf.  That's the other wonderful thing about "Emily Alone", O'Nan boldly goes where few have chosen to go before.  He has the vision and skills to make the journey one well worth taking.  Easily one of the best books I read last year.

Rating - ***** Highly Recommended

Monday, January 19, 2015

Movie Review - Blow Out

Blow Out (1981) - A small time movie sound engineer(John Travolta) captures the sound of a car crash that may been an assassination rather than an accident.  He and the young woman he rescued from the car (Nancy Allen) will try to get the truth out while a killer stalks them.

Time to swim against the stream here.  This movie has a cult following and I've been told that I'm "off my rocker", but I don't much like this movie.  Tarrantino loves it, Pauline Kael loved it, Roger Ebbert loved it.  It's considered a "classic" by many.  I spent my time watching it making derisive noises and caustic comments.

I will admit that I watched it the same day that I watched "The Conversation" (reviewed last month).  It suffers incomparison.  They are two very different movies.  Francis Ford Coppola's direction is much more spare and minimalist.  De Palma's feels more flamboyant in comparison.  So my reaction may not be entirely fair.  But "The Conversation" is always listed as one of the influences on De Palma in this movie.  So I feel perfectly justified in making the comparison.

The movies share a focus on the idea of listening in on things we're not supposed to hear and the conspiracies to cover up that knowledge.  "The Conversation" came out right after the Watergate revelations and felt fresh and cutting edge.  The whole idea had become so tread worn by 1981 that the script can't seem to generate much excitement about it.  There is a little lip service to the concept but it never felt like it was really "sold".  The audience was expected to understand the joke so there's no development of the concept.  This leaves the whole movie feeling rather hollow.

There are two performances worthy of note here.  John Lithgow is fabulously creepy as the killer.  Travolta also carries the movie quite nicely in the primary role.  I will even admit that all the "sound guy" stuff in this movie warmed the cockles of this old radio guy's heart too.

But it wasn't enough to overcome the rest.

The script is a turkey in my opinion.  The dialogue is awkward and forced.  Too often the actors come off as acting.  Nancy Allen benefits from having a role where being an airhead is fine.  Unfortunately, Sally ends up as a cardboard cut out of a character.  She's not charming, or exciting or even very interesting.  Dennis Franz walks through a fairly predictable character as the sleazy photographer/blackmailer.  There are no other characters you will care even the tiniest bit about or remember.  Which leaves Travolta acting in a bit of a vacuum.  There's no one to push against, or pull on.

Somewhere there is a cheesy '70s movie looking for its soundtrack.  The music is intrusive and overly orchestrated.  This is a movie about the tiniest sounds, the most elegant and delicate audio details.  Then the soundtrack stomps through like a herd of elephants.

I've always had reservations about De Palma's directorial style.  Half the time he is "paying tribute" to his heroes (overtly ripping them off) and the rest of the time I get the feeling he's trying to make sure we notice how clever he's being.  If I'm noticing the direction it is usually not very good.  In the end I'm left with the feeling that he either needed to go all in or back off.  The movie could have been done very stylishly or a lot less stylishly.  Where it landed just didn't thrill me much.

There is a third movie that is always mentioned with "The Conversation" and "Blow Out".  That's Antonioni's 1966 "Blow Up".  I should probably get that one cued up as well.  There's certainly room between De Palma and Coppola.

In the end, I think Travolta, Lithgow and the movie making stuff are enough to make it worth a look.

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Best of the Web - Kid President

(Best of the web is an occasional series of posts where I give a little love to the sites that I believe express the best of what the World Wide Web (you know, the Internet) can be)

Kid President is another one of the Best of the Web that began just as something fun to do.  It began as a promotional video idea for Freed-Hardeman University in Tennessee.  The primary work has been between two brothers-in-law, Brad Montague and Robby Novak.  Novak plays Kid President, an enthusiastic young man who brings humor and great energy to his positive messages.  Novak is 10 years old (born in 2004) and has Osteogenesis Imperfecta.  OI is a brittle bone disease that has resulted in over 70 fractures during Novak's life.

What began as just some fun has taken on a life of its own.  Kid President has its own YouTube channel, is a feature at Soul Pancake, has a blog, a book (Kid President's Guide to Being Awesome) due out this year, and has met the actual President!

As Brad notes in their "Who We Are" section:
What's inspiring about Robby isn't his condition, but the fact that his condition doesn't define who he is. In spite of all he's been through he not only keeps going - he dances.
 Kid President urges us to be awesome.  He giggles. He tells terrible jokes.  Kid President has publicly chastised poet Robert Frost.  He speaks to the fundamental joy of life that seems to escape us when we grow up.  Oh yes, and he dances.



What grabs me the most about these videos is that the "self appointed voice of a generation" brings a remarkably upbeat, optimistic point of view that the world can really use right now.  Kid President not only makes me smile but gives me something to think about as well.

At age 10 though, he's going to outgrow his gig eventually.  That'll be a sad day for me.

Stay awesome, Kid President, stay awesome.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Movie Review - The Guard

The Guard (2011) - When an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) arrives in a small Irish village in pursuit of international drugs smugglers he discovers the local police (Brendon Gleeson) has his own way of doing things.  The button down Fed and the unconventional local member of the Irish Garda will find their own way towards bringing the bad guys down.

Don Cheadle is on my list of "actors I'll watch in just about anything".  He is almost always worth watching even when the material isn't all that good.  Which is not the case here.  The story is wonderful and the interplay between and Gleeson (who has a long list of credits but is probably best known these days as "Mad Eye" Moody from the Harry Potter movies) is amazing.  Gleeson's character, Gerry Boyle, has simply decided to make the best of being stuck in a tiny outpost.  He makes the law his own and has created quite an acceptable life out of it, in his opinion.  If the powers that be ever took a close look at it they would call him corrupt, but he takes no more than he needs and meets out a rough form of justice.  Cheadle's by-the-book Everett is an annoyance and perfect foil for the local's twisted sense of humor. The movie is Boyle's from beginning to end.

This is a quirky, profane and sometimes violent little gem of a film.  Call it a fish out of water story, call it a black comedy, call it a fabulous directorial debut for screenwriter John Michael McDonagh.  It is all of that and more.  What it isn't is some nice polite little comedy.  Like Boyle, "The Guard" intends to have its way with you and then move on.  Trust me you'll love the experience. NOT a movie for the kiddies.

The movie was well received at Sundance but didn't make much of a ripple among American audiences.  It was the highest grossing movie in Irish history when it came out and has done pretty well worldwide.

Rating - **** Recommended

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Book Review - 39 Steps

39 Steps by John Bucan (1915) - After many years in Rhodesia Richard Hannay returns to London to begin a new phase in his life.  Shortly thereafter he meets an American named Scudder who claims to be dead.  Scudder faked his own death to escape a group of anarchists who are trying to force all of Europe into war.  Hannay lets Scudder stay in his apartment.  The following morning Scudder is dead and Hannay is on the run.  The killers, German spies known as the Black Stone, pursue Hannay into Scotland.  The pursuit will lead them over the hills of Scotland, back to London and finally to a confrontation at sea.

Written as something to do while Buchan was recovering from an illness, "39 Steps" has become a classic in the spy genre and one of the first popular versions of the "man on the run" novel.  The Hannay character was popular enough that he appears in four other novels.  This one has been made into movies on multiple occasions, the best known of them by Alfred Hitchcock.  Most of the movies bear little resemblance to the book.

And that's really too bad.  The book stands up very nicely after all these years.  In our more cynical age, Hannay's pure patriotism may seem a little dated but it comes across as honest for the character.  Buchan does a really nice job with what he referred to as a "shocker".  His writing career began in 1910 and he shows some polish here.  Buchan also served as a correspondent for The Times and wrote for the British Propaganda Bureau during the First World War.  This story has some fun and interesting twists as the story powers along.

Buchan himself was an interesting person.  He was a politician, diplomat, writer and served as Governor General of Canada as Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield.  He continued to write both fiction and history throughout his life and was a prominent member of the Church of Scotland.

Movie fans may feel tempted to read the book based on their love of one of the movies (Hitchcock's, unsurprisingly, is probably the best and certainly the best known) but be warned - the stories are very different.  The good news that each of them are certainly worth your time.

Rating - **** Recommended

Monday, January 5, 2015

Movie Review - The Conversation

The Conversation (1974) - A reclusive surveillance expert (Gene Hackman) faces the demons from his professional past when a current assignment reminds of of a job that resulted in three deaths years before.  He becomes obsessed with the recorded conversation he has made and it's possible outcome.

Francis Ford Coppola wrote and directed this one and has called it his personal favorite of all his movies.  It was made as part of the most commercially successful period of his career and arguably the most creative.  Coppola had won an Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1970 for "Patton", then produced George Lucas's directorial debut  in "THX 1138" (a film that was a flop at the time but has become a science fiction cult hit) in 1971.  In quick order we come to "The Godfather" in '72, producing Lucas again in "American Graffiti" in '73, this movie and the Robert Redford "The Great Gatsby" (screenplay) , and"The Godfather Part II" in '74 and "Apocalypse Now" in 1979.  I have quite a few favorites on that list (in fact, just skip "Gatsby" and I'll take all the rest).

This was a story that Coppola had been trying to sell in Hollywood for years.  It is an intense, introspective and claustrophobic story of a man chasing an idea down a rabbit hole.  Hackman's character, Harry Caul, tries to believe that he is completely divorced from the results of his work.  It's all about the technology and the recording.  Nothing else is his responsibility.  His religious faith doesn't allow him to believe that.  In defense he has simply withdrawn from any kind of  intimate human contact.  The director makes repeated visual references to the "other world" quality of the life Harry is trying to lead.

There's is a really outstanding supporting cast here, with lots of familiar faces.  Harrison Ford plays the smarmy corporate assistant, Terri Garr is Caul's sort of girlfriend, who eventually asks too many questions.  John Cazale (Fredo from "The Godfather") is Caul's frustrated assistant.  Cindy Williams is one of the people recorded in the conversation of the title, Robert Duvall plays the mysterious corporate head at the center of the dispute (in an uncredited role) and veteran character actor Allen Garfield (aka Allen Goorwitz) plays Caul's professional competition.

This is a can't miss combination - great director at the top of his game, wonderful script, solid cast.  Visually, this is a stunning movie.  They capture the anxiety and separation of Harry Caul.  What also jumped out at me is the quality of the soundtrack.  David Shire's work here is fabulous.

This is the kind of movie when you want to make sure you will have no interruptions as you watch it.  Every minute is worth your undivided attention.

Rating - ***** Highest Recommendation

Monday, December 29, 2014

Taking The Week Off

No Posts this week.

I'm taking my own advice from last week and stepping away from the screen.

See you in the New Year.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Book Review - Well In Time

Well In Time by Suzan Still - In a story that ranges from ancient Egypt to medieval Europe and the present day, we follow Calypso Searcy is a writer with an ability to see the future through her dreams.  That power comes to her through a golden locket.  She and her lover Javier must defend the ranch they have created in Mexico against Mexican drug cartels.  While Javier remains behind Calypso and a friend flee through underground tunnels.  They will eventually find their way to a mysterious group called the Ghosts, who may present just as great a danger as the cartel.

This is a story that brings a strong mystical aspect to its story telling.  Calypso walks along a line that divides worlds and slowly explores her ability to stand in either or both worlds.  There are two things that stand out quickly.  First, that Still is a solid story teller.  She can create a world that draws you into it.  Relatively early on she takes us deep into the ground through tunnels that slowly begin to constrict around her characters.  I had to put the book down about half way through that passage because the feeling of the walls closing in was so vivid.  Like her characters, I eventually made it through.

The second is that the author loves language.  She plays with it and weaves it into something beyond simple story telling.  At its best she creates an almost poetic approach to the story.  The difficulty, at least for me, is that she sometimes loses sight of the story in her love of language.  A single descriptive passage is buried under another and then another.  Some of the imagery felt like over reaches for me.  That became a persistant, ongoing distraction to me.  My taste is toward a sparer story telling style.  As such writers like Still never quite gain the grip on me that they might.

If, on the other hand, you like your writing a bit more fulsome and a story of the metaphysical,  then you may truly enjoy this book.

"Well In Time" hits the shelves January 20, 2015.

RATING - *** Worth A Look

Monday, December 22, 2014

All I Want For Christmas - media version

Just a short post for this holiday week.  When we were children it was the time when we began the intense anticipation of what might be waiting for us under the tree.  With that memory in mind let me take a look at what I'd like to see under my "tree" in the way of media.

A return to quality television - Please let the long national nightmare of "reality tv" and competition shows be over.  I watch less TV now than at any time in my life.  There's just very little compelling out there these days.  "Chrisley Knows Best"?  Seriously?

An increase in rationality on the Interwebs - I have a very bad habit of trying to have rational conversations with people on various sites on the Internet.  I am astounded how often it turns out to be impossible.  I am also one of the world's leaders in linking to sites like Snopes.com, because I just can not believe what people will post without ever thinking to check.  Honest to God, it takes less than a minute to verify something these days.  If it invokes a sense of "OMG, can you believe this?!?!?!?" then you should check it out.  Because more often than not it's a hoax.  In more general terms, can we at least try to deal with things like the difference between facts and opinion?  Can we deal with the idea that while you are indeed entitled to your opinion there is no guarantee that everyone else has to allow that opinion to go unchallenged.  If you have no idea why you believe what you believe (other than "Well, I was told") then you don't really have an opinion.  You're merely parroting someone else's opinion.

Of course, trying to change this is not a particularly rational pastime...

Get up and walk away from the screen - None of us need to spend as much time with our eyes locked on various screens as we do.  Put them down, walk away, go interact with the world IRL.  It's actually pretty cool out there.

That's it.  Just that would make me happy.

Hope you get what you want this holiday season!